Today’s piece is the type I often agonize over posting to Song-A-Day. It will become one of my collection of deep ambient works that I love to listen to while flying, meditating, or relaxing, but I always worry about boring my fellow participants.
That should never be a fundamental concern, of course. Creativity is a strange beast, though it’s not always what people think it is. Here one of the most eye-opening statements regarding it I ever came across:
“Creativity is not a talent; it is a way of operating.”John Cleese
This is far deeper than it seems on first read, but the basic message is simple. Creativity requires practice and consistency. That seems like a non-sensical statement, but I’ve experienced it first-hand every year I’ve done Song-A-Day. The first few days are always an explosion of pent up “stuff” even if I didn’t have any specific ideas going into it, and the last few years have been a testament to that. I didn’t have any thematic plans or snippets of melody in my head when I sat down and came up with Agnostic Prophet or Noise in the Signal, but there was certainly a reserve of energy that fueled the production.
- Mare Frigoris Ray Toler 6:02
That reserve is partially the result of a bad habit I’ve developed over the last couple of years: I don’t write much outside of February.1A fellow participant mentioned this phenomenon a couple of years back and I thought it was one of the saddest things I’d heard, and yet I now am engaged in the same behavior. In part, it’s being distracted by other aspects of life, not being in the mood, or just plain laziness, but there’s a more egregious sin I’m committing: I’m saving up my creativity for February.
As my father-in-law would say, “that’s just silly.” There isn’t an end to creativity. In fact, consistently working often gets you into the creative zone faster. That was certainly the case when I was a graphic designer. On any given project, I’d have at least 2-3 additional ideas for logos or layout while working, and would often dash off a quick sketch to keep in the future file.
That’s just silly.Joe P.
Now that’s not to say that we have unlimited attention or energy. If I were doing Song-A-Day for an entire year (or longer), I would probably get to a point where I just didn’t want to do it. I’m not sure if it would be correct to say I think I’d get bored, but I would certainly find myself in ruts or habits that can be difficult to break, or resorting to things I’d done before just to satisfy the requirement of writing. Which brings us back to Mare Frigoris.
Don’t Stay Up Too Late
I’ve been up late a lot this month. 3:00 AM has been my normal limit, but only because I know if I go past that I’ll just stay up until morning. Five hours of sleep or less isn’t sustainable for me. I can do it for awhile, but as we enter week three of the month2When things start getting weird… I find myself getting closer and closer to bailing and skipping a day. And if I skip one day, well, I’m likely to skip others because the streak has been broken. So I keep pushing myself to do something, even if it’s not great.
Which, of course, is the entire point. Song-A-Day is a direct application of what John Cleese said. Write daily. Not everything is going to be great. Most of it, in fact, won’t be. While I like almost everything I’ve done at some level, there are definitely some high and low points, tracks I skip when listening. But those skippable tracks are sometimes exactly what is needed.
Mare Frigoris is a great track if you’re chilling out or need focus music in the background for working. I didn’t put as much attention into the subtle details as I normally do, but there’s still a bit to discover when you listen closely. It’s not such a great track in an eclectic mix or when you’re in the mood to dance, though.
Horses for Courses
So the larger question is, “why am I holding myself to a different standard than I do for the artists I like to listen to?” Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2 is a masterpiece, but I wouldn’t put it on at a wedding reception, just as I wouldn’t play Head Like a Hole at a spa. That may be the underlying reason I’m hesitant to post these deep ambient space tracks: they’re being played in an eclectic mix full of songs and beat-driven works. Then again, that mix also includes some really experimental spoken word and poetry, sound design, even just collections of noise every now and then.
Yes, I have no doubt that other participants skip or scan through some of my tracks. I certainly do that at times as well, in large part because there’s so much music being written that there just isn’t time to listen critically to everything everyday, though I do try.
But What About This Track?
Production on Mare Frigoris happened pretty quickly. I had already intended to do an electronic instrumental, and liked the concept of creating an album series named after lunar seas and geography. As soon as I loaded that opening sound, I knew where I was heading, and how to do it. This is the point where I engaged in that “way of operating.” Yes, I’ve done similar things before, but I haven’t done this thing.
I played the entire track in by hand for the first run-through. I was working quickly, for the rest of it not allowing myself to sink into the sound as I have previously this month. As soon as a bit was recorded, I’d stop, skip to the next section, and record again. One thing I’m doing a bit better with over the last couple of years is knowing when to stop. I could easily spend a lot of time on this track, making tiny changes, adding in sounds, changing the mix and timbre, but it’s not necessary, especially in February.3To help with my anxiety about the eclecticism of my music, I’m planning to create some playlists to have here on the site that will make it easier for people to discover things that they’re interested in. Songs, ambient works, beats, the funny ones, my “best of” stuff, and so on.
The last sonic bit was adding in some noise and detail. I’m not entirely satisfied with how these turned out, but I couldn’t find the exact sounds I had in my head, and wanted to be finished by midnight at the latest. I got to the “good enough” point and bounced out a master, just taking a swag4Scientific Wild-Ass Guess at how much to raise the level. That first bounce was a little too loud, so I took another swag and it was close enough.
And finally, it was time to name it. It was clearly in the lunar series, so then it became a matter of selecting which sea. I’ve enjoyed learning about these this month, and when I saw the “Sea of Cold,” it fit the sound almost perfectly. So there you have it.
I’ll end this post with some additional creativity wisdom from John Cleese:
- “New ideas are rather like small creatures. They’re easily strangled.”
- “Put simply, you can’t ask your unconscious a question, and expect a direct answer—a neat, tidy little verbal message.”
- “But perhaps the biggest interruption coming from your inside is caused by your worrying about making a mistake.”
- “When you’re being creative there is no such thing as a mistake.”
- “Most adults, by contrast, find it hard to be playful — no doubt because they have to take care of all the responsibilities that come with an adult’s life. Creative adults, however, have not forgotten how to play.”
- “Getting discouraged is a total waste of your time.”
- “The greatest killer of creativity is interruption. It pulls your mind away from what you want to be thinking about. Research has shown that, after an interruption, it can take eight minutes for you to return to your previous state of consciousness, and up to twenty minutes to get back into a state of deep focus.”
Instruments & Samples
Effects, Mixing, & Mastering
Valhalla Supermassive, Gullfoss, Pro-L 2
Image credit: NASA
- 1A fellow participant mentioned this phenomenon a couple of years back and I thought it was one of the saddest things I’d heard, and yet I now am engaged in the same behavior.
- 2When things start getting weird…
- 3To help with my anxiety about the eclecticism of my music, I’m planning to create some playlists to have here on the site that will make it easier for people to discover things that they’re interested in. Songs, ambient works, beats, the funny ones, my “best of” stuff, and so on
- 4Scientific Wild-Ass Guess